grist

 

Monday, April 19, 2004
The reading blitz continues unabated. This weekend was unfinished business weekend: Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (a book I have even taugh sections of, without ever finishing it--considering it is such a small, slight book, I've always been vaguely shocked at myself for this--very uncharacteristic).

Anil's Ghost, as I mentioned earlier, began very flat for me. I had the sense that there was so much history, tragedy, so much memory that was present behind the narrative for Ondaatje that he did not add it to the story itself. This may be presumptuous of me, but I didn't feel the book really got moving until we were in the Grove of the Ascetics, almost halfway through the book.

After that, it had some odd parallels with The English Patient (a set of damaged people with esoteric skills try to heal themselves and each otherin the late days of a long and brutal war, living in close isolation in a huge, moldering home that formerly held an artist. There were some moments of the same piercing beauty of The English Patient, and some great power in it, though it never rose to the same heights.

One small pleasure that is Ondaatje's: he provides observations within small comparisons that illuminate whole hidden, astonishing worlds. For example, he compares Palipana's discovery of words that are not there within ancient manuscripts to the way, in wartime, color-blind people are used to spot men in camoflauge, to see their shapes rather than being deceived by their colors. This is a lovely expression-and are color-blind people used this way? If so, it seems amazing that the military has come across this perceptual insight and used it to advantage--and that Ondaatje has unearthed it and put it to this purpose. And if not, then the invention of the whole plausible chain to support this moment of transfigured perception is even more remarkable.

And the book made me want to go to Sri lanka very badly, despite the horrors (or maybe because of them, in some ways. More on that later (3.5 Stars)

Einstein's Dreams is a lovely little gem of a book. The language is lyrical and tightly compressed and in exacting service to a set of ideas--dreams about the nature of time that come to Einstein the postal clerk as he finishes his Theory of Relativity in Switzerland. (4 stars). In each of a dozen worlds, time functions in a very different way and a different world takes shape as a result--in one, there is no future--the world is always at the moment of ending; in another, the future is rigidly locked into what it will be, and people can reflect on that as it happens, but not change it. These are fascinating exercises, and the precise shape Lightman gives them a startling and resonant life--the people living in platformed houses on mountaintops in the worlds where time runs more slowly the further you are from the center of the earth--the absurd terror of the people caught in eddies of time and cast back into their own pasts--terrified that if they disturb the world in the slightest, their own worlds will be destroyed.

This is a sketchbook--these worlds are all presented in a few small pages, and then he moves on to the next and the next, and all of them echo with possibilities for our own world of time, our own experience of it, the inferences we draw about our own ambitions. In a few places, the ideas strain at the stories (the houses racing past each other in the world where time goes more slowly for those in motion), but those are few. A delightful book, and, despite the fact that it has taken me a decade to read it, only the matter of a couple of hours to read.



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